Rules Are for Schmucks: Trashing Research

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Parkinson’s disease is brutal. First come the uncontrollable tremors, then the muscle rigidity, the choking, the dementia—hell on earth. There is room for hope, though. Researchers have been working diligently on finding new treatments for this scourge, some of which have progressed to human clinical trials.

Unfortunately, the legs have just been kicked out from under much of that hope. The therapies being tested in clinical trials for diseases like Parkinson’s, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries were derived in part from experiments using tissue from the remains of aborted fetuses. The Christian right has just won an important victory in its war to end all such research, and the road to a total shutdown appears wide open.

Last month, eighty-five members of Congress signed a letter to the FDA, demanding an end to the purchase of human fetal tissue for use in critical research. They were supported by another letter from forty-five God lobby outfits, including the Family Research Council. The latest particular point of hysteria was that the purchased tissue was being implanted into mice, creating a “human-mouse chimera.”

The object of such an implant is not to create a talking mouse. The object is to create a small nearly human liver, or thymus, or other organ that can then be safely and economically used for testing new drugs. Almost every new drug formulation needs to be studied for its effects on the human immune system. If a new Parkinson’s, HIV, ALS or other drug destroys a nearly human liver in a mouse, that’s a powerful clue not to sink more time and money into developing it. The role that fetal tissue plays in modern medical research is enormous—the National Institutes of Health spent $107 million on such research in FY 2017 alone.

Count on the God lobby to whip up emotion rather than apply cool reason to the problem of dealing with Parkinson’s disease. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), for example, shrieked that the FDA is using taxpayer dollars “to fund a barbaric research method that treats babies like research guinea pigs”—a statement not even close to being true. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) calls this noble effort to cure Parkinson’s and other diseases a “grisly, disturbing, and unnecessary business.”

The God expert spin is that the FDA research promotes abortion by making it profitable. Matt Lamb of Students for Life complains that the FDA is “using the tragedy of abortion to run very unethical and immoral experiments by essentially combining human tissue with mice.” David Daleiden, the anti-abortion activist who has been found in contempt of court, says, “By custom-ordering late-term aborted baby body parts…the FDA is directly complicit in these abortions and implies that these kids are worth more to the US government dead than alive.” He also argues that “the big problem, when we talk about the harvesting and sale of fetal tissue from abortion, is you’re creating a market. You’re introducing this extra new level of demand for abortion.”

Conducting research on aborted fetal tissue and the creation of human-animal chimeras may both sound “gross,” when you first think about them. But so does a great deal of medical research and treatment. Slice somebody open to cut out part of their innards? Yuk! But if the removed tissue is infected, or cancerous, such a procedure is highly desirable. So is research involving fetal tissue, if it can lead to more effective treatment of Parkinson’s and other diseases.

Nevertheless, the letters produced an instant result. The FDA immediately canceled an ongoing contract with a nonprofit organization to supply fetal tissue for research, while the Department of Health and Human Services pledged a sweeping review of all such ongoing research. Perhaps the administration can cite past precedent of medieval religious bans on the dissection of cadavers to justify the new crackdown. But without such dissection, where would medicine be today?

Many states have laws requiring the consent of the woman before her aborted fetus can be used for research purposes. Those that don’t have such laws probably should. But if such consent is given, what is the ethical difference between such a donation and an adult’s decision to donate his or her corpse to science? None that I can see.

To hear HHS tell it, they plan to “ensure that efforts to develop such [ethical] alternatives” to the use of fetal tissue for research “are funded and accelerated.” So instead of spending our tax money to figure out ways to cure Parkinson’s and other diseases, the government is spending it to figure out ways to keep the Christian right happy.

I have a constructive suggestion for them. Instead of testing new drugs on human-mouse chimeras, they could be tested directly on Christian fundamentalist members of Congress. If there are too many test failures and we run out, we can turn to testing on the God experts themselves. There are plenty of them available.

I don’t wish Parkinson’s disease on anyone. But if, twenty years from now, Mr. Daleiden, or any of the eighty-five congressmen, or anyone in their families ever does suffer from it, I hope they will retain sufficient brain function to remember back to the fall of 2018, and pat themselves on the back for all the hard work they did to make darn sure there isn’t any relief for their suffering.